Sunday, February 1, 2009

The People Taking The Stairs

Madison Square Garden is dubbed "the world's most famous arena" and known as "the mecca" of basketball. The arena is right smack in Manhattan. It's above Penn Station. It's a block south of Macy's. It's not in the Bronx or Queens or East Rutherford. It's not on Long Island or at Auburn Hills. It's in New York City. It is New York City.

The lights at the Garden are lower away from the court and the game seems to be in a spotlight. Aesthetically the building is as ergonomically perfect for watching hoops as any place I've ever been. There are no poor sight lines and no steep inclines to scale to reach the cheap seats (you actually walk down to get to the highest seats in the 400 level). Rising up from the court, the seats extend unabated from Spike Lee in Row A of Section 26 to me in Row G of Section 412. The bowl seating is never broken by a level of luxury boxes, which are at the highest level of the stadium and as literally distant from the bulk of the fans as those within the glass-enclosed boxes are metaphorically different from the diehards who pack MSG and cheer on the Knicks. And, it's that tide of humanity that really makes Knicks' games special. That makes the Garden special. It's the fans that are the constant over the years. From the moment that Ned Irish first began organizing college hoops doubleheaders in 1934 at the Old Garden the New York City basketball fans have been learning the game. And learning the part they play in it. The fans know their stuff. They applaud the hockey assist while watching basketball. They love a guy who'll take a charge and commits the hard foul rather than allowing a layup.

The second worst part about the Isiah Thomas Error was that so many of the core fans stopped coming with regularity. The tickets were too expensive and the team was too bad. You were more likely to sit next to tourists from Italy or Spain then you were to be seating next to a longtime season ticket holder from Brooklyn. But, there were perks. Those who knew better could usually sneak down to better seats for the second half. And, you could always exit really quickly after the game. Not because the place was empty. Because somehow the Knicks still ranked in the top ten in attendance each of the last four years. You could get out early because nobody was talking the stairs. Most everyone was funneling down the escalators.

Along the outer wall of each concourse on the 300 and 200 level there are intermittently tan doors marked NO RE-ENTRY. Behind these doors are stairwells that let you at on the ground floor. The stairwells are not well marked but I've been walking down them my whole life. Most Knicks fans have been. And that's why stairwell density is a terrific barometer for the type of crowd at a Knicks game. When the stairs were empty you knew that there more tourists and folks with company tickets than people who have lived and died with this team over the years.

After Wednesday night's win over the Hawks, my brother and I darted into the stairs rather than trying to fight the crowd descending via the escalators, which were probably turned off. And, the stairs were jam-packed. Finally. We moved one step at a time down the many floors towards the street. And, I couldn't have been happier. The team's recent home winning streak and increased viability as a second (or maybe third) -tier playoff contender has brought the real fans back. This was brought home to me as I eavesdropped on the conversation of three men making their way down the stairs directly in front of us.

Who: "It all started with Duhon and his passing."

What: "Completely."

I Don't Know: "He doesn't force anything. He just knows when to keep or pass it."

What: "Completely."

Who: "He must be a jazz fan."

What: "Completely. "

Two had on jeans and sweatshirts. One wore sweatpants another a puffy wintercoat that seemed misplaced. One wore a baseball cap, one earmuffs and the third left his bald head unadorned. Each was surely closer to 60 than to 40. Closer to DeBuscherre than to Oakley. They continued to converse about the game and the future of this group (wondering "how can you really let Lee walk?") as they pushed towards 7th Avenue. I wanted to interrupt them and introduce myself. Because I couldn't have been more glad that they were back. But I resisted. The last thing I wanted to do was weird them out. So I just listened. And appreciated their conversation.

New York is a point guard city. Assists are the coin of the realm here. We love our bigs and our toughs but it is a passer that makes fans applaud. This is why I pay to see Chris Paul and Derrick Rose even when they are playing @ the Nets. Passers push us to be our best. It's a passer that makes us make links between improvisation on the hardwood and on the stage. Only in New York is there one step between a few nice assists and jazz music for a trio of soon-to-be AARP members. Who are white.

Only a group of Knicks fans assume that Chris Duhon's court self-control and sense of the moment makes him a fan of jazz music. And, not because we like our team any more than other places. This isn't about passion. It's about depth. It's about applying our best curiosity and intellect to basketball. It's about the ways in which fans here really think about basketball. It is no mean entertainment. It can be an art form. It can be jazz. Basketball in New Jersey is not like jazz. Nor is it in Utah, where the Jazz actually play. Not even in Oakland or Los Angeles. This is not a matter of better/worse fans. It's just a difference. Many towns have great traditions and phenomenal home court atmospheres. It's just different here.

I don't mean to be provincial or offend fans in other cities. Not at all. I just want to celebrate the fact that the stairwells at MSG are full again. The Knicks are back. And the fans are back, too. And conversations like the one I heard shared between three strangers in a dimly lit stairwell are (jazz) music to my ears.

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